Recently, a friend of mine asked me whether or not I thought the ideas presented in "The Dark Knight" could be separated from the source material. In response, I quickly drafted this messy little essay of sorts.
Can the ideas presented in a Batman film be divorced from the source material?
Short answer: Yes.
However, the question should be asked and seriously discussed. Batman is a cultural icon that has persisted in the public conscious for seventy years now. Just as any film that depicts Jesus Christ is not interpreted solely in terms of what the film itself presents but also what is written in the Bible and what many centuries’ worth of theologians, any film that depicts Batman is typically interpreted not only in terms of what such a film presents but also what has been depicted in other media.
While the typical filmgoer is not all that knowledgeable about comic books, Batman is one of those characters that have permeated the overall modern popular culture. Because of radio and movie serials, the 1960s TV show, wildly popular movies, countless animated series, action figures, and video games, even someone who has never read a comic book likely knows who Bruce Wayne is and why he is Batman. Because of his popularity and 70-year existence, the premise behind Batman and (at least) some minor details are known by just about every man, woman, and child in the “civilized” world.
Because Batman is such a well-known character, it might be unlikely that a viewer would initially watch a particular Batman movie (for the purposes of this piece, I’ll focus on “The Dark Knight”) without making associations with prior interpretations of Batman. However, it is not necessary that a viewer discuss “The Dark Knight” while associating with previous incarnations of the characters presented therein. It is simply a lot easier to do so, and such associations allow for more discussion.
One can divorce the ideas presented in “The Dark Knight” from the source material/character by simply “emptying his teacup”. However, if that answer is too vague/eastern for you, then it may take some extra effort on your part to watch the film with eyes only for the film itself. I admit that I am unable to logically explain exactly by what method one might go about doing such a thing, but I do think that if I am able to do it, then most anyone else should be able to as well. As a lifelong Batman fanatic, perhaps I will naturally be subconsciously biased and never truly able to interpret “The Dark Knight” freely, but I can do my damndest to at least discuss the film without making reference to other Batman-related media (except for “Batman Begins”, which is excluded from such efforts because it is the progenitor of the filmic masterpiece that is the focus of this writing).
Let us look at how the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman is portrayed in the film:
He is a self-proclaimed man with no limits. He keeps moving. He gets bitten, beaten, stabbed, and even shot, yet he continues to fight and run and do all of those things that physically distinguish Batman from lesser mortal men.
He is supposedly incorruptible. Even the Joker believes as much. He cannot be bought, bullied, or even negotiated with. It is interesting that he should be considered incorruptible when he is, in fact, a corruption – of law, societal ethics, and the sense of goodness as “light”. He works outside the law to enforce a sense of justice that is more in keeping with the law than breaking it. He uses methods that many people would not approve of, especially when used by authority figures (i.e., torture, invasion of privacy, blowing up parked cars, etc.). Most people would associate light with a concept of “good”, but here we have a “good guy” who is garbed in black, works at night, and stays mostly in the shadows. Or is he more like the Bat-Signal? A symbol, a beacon, a “light” in the sky or at the end of the tunnel?
In the film, Bruce Wayne/Batman is perhaps driven by more than a sense of simple revenge. The loss of his parents certainly inspire his actions, but he is not as haunted by their deaths as he is in “Begins”. He may be driven by something broader, deeper, more important, and more inherent. However, it is possible that his love of Gotham and his need to protect and clean the city may simply be the manifestation of his psychological need to please his father.
Whatever the reason for his mission, he certainly demonstrates a sense of “tunnel vision”. Like a horse with blinders on, he knows only to move ahead. He sees little besides the mission at hand. He may be somewhat distracted by Rachel Dawes or the Wayne Enterprises’ goings-on, but he is ultimately moving forward as Batman. For this reason, he may be considered something of a narcissist. The world revolves around Batman. Alfred has no life of his own (even beyond the duties of a normal butler, though this is also his choice). Bruce seems to only ever think of Rachel in terms of her relationship with him. Batman’s ego may very well be out of control. He wants to be a symbol, an embodiment of ideals. He cannot simply be a mere mortal.
Is it Bruce Wayne or Batman that displays this narcissism? Are they the same man? They could be two halves of a whole, or the protagonist’s personalities could be representative of an uneven dichotomy. Is Bruce/Batman representative of the duality of man? Is he more representative of a Freudian construct? Perhaps there is a vengeful, idealistic monster that is the superego; there is a misguided, hedonistic playboy that is the id; and the character we see on screen is the ego, balancing the two sides to live in the real world. There may also be the concept presented by Hermann Hesse in “Steppenwolf”-- that there are thousands, if not infinite, different personalities within one person. We may just see a few different amalgams in the different actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
In the film, Batman is supposed to represent the victory of good over bad, order over chaos, and Good over Evil. He does not kill the Joker. Instead, he captures him, choosing to let the authorities (the physical manifestation of order) contain him (the physical manifestation of chaos).
I have done my best to look at the subject strictly in terms of the film and the story presented therein. Were I to mention comics, Batman would actually be much more complex and difficult to figure out because of the many different writers who have handled the character over the last 71 years. Sometimes, Batman would be much kinder, or much worse. So, hopefully this can serve as a sufficient enough demonstration that a Batman film can be discussed without bringing up the comic books.